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Prospecting in Denver

The surprisingly competitive Nuggets have a lot of pieces. Should they stay funky, or mortgage their future for a franchise cornerstone?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Nuggets aren’t all that attractive on the surface. They’re 3-4 and are tied for the NBA’s 14th-worst net rating. They’ve missed the playoffs for three straight years, and haven’t won more than 36 games in a season during that stretch. They’re not a big free-agent destination. They don’t have a superstar. But they do have just about everything else: youth, assets, and versatility. Inspect all the teams in the league, and you won’t find many young squads with a brighter future. They look like a middling team on the playoff bubble, but they’re really just one or two moves away from being special.

The Nuggets have been a must-watch on League Pass late in the fourth quarter, with three of their losses coming by a combined six points, and two wins by a combined eight. On their only back-to-back of this young season, they got blown out by Detroit, then did the same to the Celtics the next night. They’re on the verge of being consistently good, but they’re not quite there yet.

The move that sent them on this path was the 2011 blockbuster deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks. Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler are the leftovers from that trade. At 6-foot-10, Gallinari is a mismatch nightmare in the pick-and-roll, whether he’s the ball handler or the screener. If the defense switches a smaller player onto him, he can dominate in the post, where he scored a Durant-like 1.11 points per possession last season, per Synergy. Chandler is a switchblade on defense, capable of locking down multiple positions while providing a complementary offensive spark.

As good as Gallinari is, he can’t be the alpha on a contending playoff roster. He has to be a second or third star. His teammate Nikola Jokic could also fill that role. He’s a hefty big man with a guard’s skills — the only qualifying rookie center in the past 40 years to post an assist percentage above 18, per Basketball-Reference. Players with Jokic’s blend of size, basketball IQ, and handle are rarities, yet somehow the Nuggets landed him with the 41st pick in the 2014 draft. In that same draft, the Nuggets traded the rights to Doug McDermott to the Bulls in exchange for the rights to Jusuf Nurkic, a throwback center who owns the paint, and Gary Harris, a guard with the Grindfather’s tenacity.

Jokic and Nurkic are Denver’s starting frontcourt this season. There’s a lot of talent between the two of them, but the pairing hasn’t worked. The Nuggets get outscored by 7.7 points per 100 possessions with them both on the floor at the same time, per NBA Wowy. The same spacing issues that forced Memphis to split up its Zach Randolph–Marc Gasol frontcourt have plagued Denver this season.

The Nuggets have a positive net rating with Gallinari at the 4 when paired with Jokic or Nurkic. They’ve also found success with the Nurkic–Kenneth Faried combo, which has played a chunk of its minutes against bench units. Faried has fallen out of the picture for Denver; he was once considered a promising young big man but has seen his role decline under Mike Malone. He’s still a bouncy rim runner who has value, though perhaps not as much anymore in Denver. The “Jurkic” duo has struggled, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work. With a shift in lineups and substitution patterns, the pairing might fare better against opposing bench units, as opposed to getting run off the court against starters.

The Nuggets are at their best — like so many teams — when they space the floor around a good big man with shooters. Since Denver hired Tim Connelly as general manager in 2013, its front office has made suave trades and draft selections. The Nuggets’ acquisitions suggest it is a goal to add players with a knack for shooting and the ability to take on different roles depending on lineup and situation.

In 2015, Denver traded for Will Barton, who has shined as a playmaking and scoring wing. Barton was an outcast in Portland, but the lack of spotlight or pressure in Denver proved to be a perfect situation for him to have a career revival. Later that year, they drafted point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, a key part of their future as a two-way point guard with lockdown defensive potential. Denver has also operated as a developmental lab for international prospects, giving them time and opportunity to adapt to the NBA.

Through numerous transactions, the Nuggets compiled a haul of first-round draft picks for a deep 2016 class. They picked guards Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley and forward Juancho Hernangomez. The latter has played only sparingly as a rookie but projects as a perfect forward for today’s small-ball era. Beasley is a smart, efficient player, and an excellent shooter who uses pristine footwork to unleash shots even when a defender is breathing down his neck. Like Beasley, Murray is a knockdown shooter. He got off to a slow start this season, missing his first 17 shots, and he’ll require patience to develop his potential as a combo guard. Until then, the Nuggets can enjoy his sharpshooting.

The Nuggets have built a chameleonic foundation: They can play the positionless style that’s taken the league by storm, or the can go bully ball with the Jokic-Nurkic combo (though it hasn’t been effective so far). Still, after dealing away Melo to start assembling this infrastructure, they need the man, someone who can fix this blaring statistical issue: In the fourth quarter, the Nuggets have the NBA’s worst offensive rating.

They could find a star through the draft. They own two first-round picks in the loaded 2017 draft (their own and Memphis’s top-5 protected). After the top two or so prospects, in my opinion, the prospects in the 2017 class are relatively even. The player who goes 13th could very well end up better than the player who goes third, so there’s an opportunity to strike gold even without a top pick.

With so much young talent, two highly valuable first-rounders in 2017, and future picks, the team is armed to make a push for a superstar if one becomes available. The Nuggets have resisted multiple trade offers for Gallinari over the past two seasons, per sources, and they’ve tried to acquire proven talent (according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe the team made a push for Paul Millsap this summer).

DeMarcus Cousins is often mentioned by Nuggets fans, since he previously played under Malone when he was the coach in Sacramento. But I’m more intrigued by Boogie’s old Kentucky teammate, John Wall. Most teams don’t need a point guard, since it’s one of the deepest positions in the league, and even if Wall were considered an upgrade, he might not be worth the assets it would require to get him. But the Nuggets are a team in need of one. Maybe that point guard is Mudiay, but he isn’t necessarily the answer at just 20 years old, and with shaky shooting and decision-making. Wall is the sure bet: a legitimate 20-plus-point-per-game scorer, a lightning bolt in the open floor, and a virtuoso navigating defenses.

Don’t be fooled by the Wizards’ dominant win over the depleted Celtics on Wednesday night. They are in shambles. Washington ranks bottom-10 in many important categories: defensive rating, net rating, assist percentage, assist-turnover ratio, and true shooting percentage. If this slide continues, maybe they should acquire a care package of youth and draft picks for their one true superstar?

There have been absolutely no indications Wall can be had, but it’s at least plausible he could become available. Just to toss an idea out there: Maybe Mudiay, Nurkic, and both 2017 draft picks would be enticing for Washington. The Wiz would still have Otto Porter and Bradley Beal, with their own first-round pick, two high-to-mid first-rounders in a deep draft, and tons of young talent. Wall would join a team that has more talent than any he’s played on before, moving to a city that might actually put up a billboard with his face on it. The Nuggets would have their top-flight superstar who fits seamlessly next to their sharpshooting guards, and versatility at wing and forward.

You might think that the Nuggets shouldn’t even make that trade. Wall isn’t a perfect player, after all. That’s what makes their standing in the league so interesting: There are multiple paths to contention in sight.